startups

David M Brear 11FS
David M Brear 11:FS

“Good leaders really understand that it’s not about them. It’s about what they can do to get the best out of everybody else around them. “

 

David M Brear 11:FS

Exclusive Interview. Dexter Cousins chats to David M Brear CEO of 11:FS, the globally renowned Fintech and digital banking consultancy. Find out David’s secrets on leadership, attracting the very best talent and how to bootstrap a global business.

11:FS is much more than a Podcast. Can you explain the business model?

David: We’ve been up to a few things other than just hanging out with microphones and doing podcasts.

Over the last three and a bit years, we’ve built Mettle, a SME challenger bank with NatWest in the UK. In Hong Kong we’ve worked with WeLab and Standard Chartered and in Singapore we’ve worked with our good friends Grab. We’ve also worked with a number of different companies in South Africa and we are midway through building out a consumer bank in the US.

From an 11:FS perspective, we live by the mantra that digital financial services are only 1% finished. Our mission is to change the fabric of financial services. And we do that in many different ways.

On one side we have a consulting services business working with people around the planet, whether it’s regulators or banks or tech players or whoever wants to build out new green field propositions. We help to define strategy and move the ideas forward. 

On the other side, it’s about building products that actually solve problems we’ve had ourselves, whether it’s things like Pulse, a global benchmarking tool, or the blockers we’ve come up against for delivering truly digital services at speed and scale.

That directly led us to establish 11:FS Foundry, which is a digitally native approach to core banking with a full stack architecture.

What prompted you to start 11:FS?

David: Four years back we struck on a thesis that we are so early in the cycle of change. The promise of everything the Internet brings to an industry that fundamentally hasn’t changed for 300 years was nowhere near being realised.

Digital is really about using the power of data to create an ultra personalised experience with much better services and products. 

Unfortunately the way in which big banking organisations have implemented digital is more about taking people and paper out of the process. That’s digitisation, not digital.

The justification of every bank’s digital transformation had been cost driven. It has only been in the last few years where banks have realised they need to revolutionise their approach and provide better services and products. 

The change has predominantly been led through major changes globally, in the regulatory space and through competition. New players have come into the space, whether that be Fintech startups or Big Tech companies like Apple, and they are showing the banks that people just want better services.

We are just at the beginning of fundamental shifts in banking and financial services. 

How Did You Get the Business off the ground?

David: We’ve taken no money. From month three of founding the organisation we were profitable. This pre revenue nonsense is definitely not for me. I don’t think you can call it a business unless it makes profit and makes revenue. Call me old fashioned on that one. But for me, it’s all about creating something of value for people. And if you do that then you should be able to monetise it.  

There have been key moments where we have been very lucky and times when we have been ballsy. Episode One of Fintech Insider is an example. We had no listeners and no idea how we were editing the show, but managed to get a sponsor because they believed in what we were doing.

The first client of 11:FS Pulse was brought in as a partner before the product even existed. DNB invested in Foundry when it was no more than 11 slides.

We’ve been lucky to find people who believe in what we are doing, are probably as crazy as us and share the same vision, which is awesome. But ultimately our success comes down to creating things that are of great value to our clients.

You have an incredible line up of talent in the business, how have you attracted them to 11:FS? 

David: I’m 39 years old now. Entrepreneurs my age can attract the right talent more effectively than people who are starting out a lot younger.  You build up a network of people over your career where you think I don’t know when, but we’re gonna work together again.

I met Jason Bates (11:FS cofounder) back when he was at Starling, I was still at Gartner. I knew with Jason we’d work together at some point. Similar to Ryan Wareham, our COO. We worked really well together when I was at Lloyds Banking. 

You get a feel for people in terms of their unique strengths. If there is a pre existing relationship you already have an understanding of each other. From there you build a founding team.

Beyond that, I honestly think success is fundamentally about momentum. One success leads to another success, which over time creates a magnetic pull where you attract the right people. 

 

Have you found the Fintech Insider podcast is a good tool for talent attraction and bringing in new business?

David: Yeah, 100%. It’s crazy, we get hundreds of emails from people interested in working with us either as employees, partners or clients. At the beginning of the company you’re five people sitting around a table trying to figure out how you can compete with Accenture and McKinsey.

We couldn’t outspend them from a marketing perspective. So, we decided to out play them with brutal authenticity and a level of distribution that would create a fundamentally different way of engaging with our customer base. 

We set out asking;

‘How can we be authentic? How can we be provocative? How can we really establish human connections with the brand? ‘

David M. Brear 11:FS

Even now we could not reach the amount of people that we do with the level of content marketing that we put out using our competitors marketing approach. We have focused so much on brand narrative, it’s not about the products or services we offer. Our brand narrative is fundamentally about what we believe in and our values. 

When you align with people on your belief system or your aspiration about what the industry could be, then you find a higher level of connectivity that you can never achieve by sending out a bullshit brochure. 

 

What kind of team and culture are you building?

David: 11:FS is my first CEO role. I have worked for some really good CEOs and one or two really bad ones in the past. But I’ve probably learned more from the really bad CEOs, especially on what not to do when it comes building a winning culture!

The 11:FS culture is based on servant leadership. We are not a hierarchical company and believe bad and good ideas can come from anywhere. Whether it’s bad ideas coming from the very top or good ideas coming from anybody across the organisation.

Trust is a huge thing from my perspective as a leader. If you have 360 degree trust of your people in the business then there is a positive intent running through the whole company. 

When it comes to leadership I don’t consider myself a businessman. I’m more of a sports guy. So, I always look to bring the same mentality of a very successful sports team into the 11:FS team culture.

I think there’s an honesty to sports that is often very much missing within the business world. Transparency and accountability are key to a sports team.

If somebody’s playing badly on the team, they know and you know really quickly. There is nowhere to hide, but as a sports team you’ll do everything you can to increase the productivity of the team and increase the impact you can make from an individual perspective.

With sports teams it is as much about psychology as it is physiology. And I think that is missing in the business world. 

How do you motivate the team?

Good leaders really understand that it’s not really about them. It’s about what they can do to get the best out of everybody else around them.

Whether it’s creating a sense of urgency, whether it’s creating a vision and reinforcing it until the goal is reached, whether it’s giving people a level of motivation to run through walls they wouldn’t have tried to do before. 

In big organisations leadership stops being about getting the best out of the people and focuses on managing the board or managing a group of shareholders.

And that’s where I think you start to see a significant drop in the productivity of people within an organisation. And unfortunately, it’s where you start to see an almost unrecoverable position from a cultural perspective.

 

 

Busting Startup Hiring Myths

If you are a Fintech leader, you will probably agree that hiring great people can sometimes feel like an impossible task.

Since launching in 2016, Tier One People has interviewed hundreds of Fintech leaders. These frank discussions on the challenges of growing and scaling a startup sometimes can contradict the popular advice from Silicon Valley.  We have researched and analysed the hiring strategies of Google, Facebook, Netflix and other tech firms and see some major flaws in following the strategies for a startup in Australia.

Let’s bust some hiring myths.

Hire for culture fit.

Katherine McConnell is Founder and CEO of Brighte. She is recognised as the Outstanding FinTech leader in Australia and was named in the Top 10 most influential women in Fintech globally. Katherine had this to say about hiring on culture fit.

Today we’re able to attract great people because of the brand, our investors and the fact we are a solid business. But a year ago, no one had heard of Brighte.

Attracting great people to a start-up is very difficult. You don’t have much leverage. Hiring based on values is nice but not always possible. Now Brighte is established we absolutely recruit on values and cultural alignment.

Initially I hired people based on technical expertise. I had to take a gamble on whether the person would work out or not. We just had to build the platform and get it done. The advice I was given was ‘hire slow, fire fast’ but in a startup sometimes you have to hire fast and fire slow. As a leader you have to make tough decisions.


Hire based on proven experience.

Martin McCann Trade Ledger

Martin McCann is CEO and Cofounder of Trade Ledger, winner of FinTech Startup of the year 2019. Trade Ledger is rapidly scaling with offices in Sydney and London.

We don’t focus on people’s experience or their background, we focus on whether or not they would fit well with the team or will they be disruptive in the team. We prefer to hire people with high potential or high propensity for success.

What we’ve found is interesting. People who are under-experienced, properly motivated and show high potential are a much better fit for this organisation than people who’ve got proven experience.

People with high potential fit the way we work. They want to get ahead quickly, they appreciate the opportunity to be able to contribute and to learn. And they understand the value it creates for them as an asset that differentiates them in the market.


Create a culture where there is no fear of failure.

Vincent Turner is Founder of Uno Home Loans. He is a Fintech veteran now on his third startup. Vincent spent five years in Silicon Valley, setting up the Valleys first ever Fintech Meetup. Vincent had this to say about failure.

We are a consumer focused fintech, so our culture is driven by discovery and big ideas. You can conduct focus groups, give customers a prototype, let them observe it, but that customer will act differently when you ship the product. To get to something that works is an act of discovery

The team is encouraged to come up with extraordinary ideas and to test them out. Then we make a frank evaluation of what worked and what didn’t. We don’t talk about failure at uno. Failure is when you are reckless in the way you try things. But an experimentation-led culture, where you can call out what works and what doesn’t, is the absolute mainstay for any customer centric business.

Millenials are hard to motivate.

George Lucas is CEO of Raiz Invest and ASX listed investment platform that helps people save and invest automatically. The app has been a big hit with millenials and George applies the same approach to customers as he does managing his team.

Raiz has gained a lot of traction with Millennials, more than 900,000 people have downloaded the app and we are managing more than $250 million in funds.

We have developed a lot of loyalty within our customer base. Engagement is key and we are always listening to our customers. If you look at our product development releases to date, some examples being Raiz Kids, Raiz Rewards, My Finance and most recently Raiz Super, it has all been driven by our customers.

Maybe the difficulties other finance companies experience tapping into the Millennial market are self-inflicted? Let’s face it, Financial Services in Australia is heavily dominated by middle-aged men. We have seen several instances in the last twelve months where young people feel the people in power are out of touch with the modern world.

Rather than lecturing our customers on whether they should spend their money on Avo and Toast, we are providing them with the tools to save for a home deposit, or a holiday, or their kids school fees. Millennials are no different to any other customer. Just listen, give them what they need and treat them with respect.

We have adopted the same approach with our people who seem to enjoy the challenges of a FinTech startup. I listen and provide my team with the tools to do their job. Then I let them get on with it. Its a very laid back environment, we don’t manage people, no one comes in to work in a suit and tie, we’re not that type of financial services organisation. We have a mutual respect for each other. And I am learning so much from our people. It’s a very young business, most of our people are under the age of 30. And they seem to be laughing a lot, so they can’t be that unhappy!


Startups can’t compete for exceptional talent.

Alex Badran is Co-Founder of Spriggy, Fintech Startup of the year. By adopting a Lean Startup approach to hiring, Spriggy has managed to assemble a diverse group of highly talented people, while bootstrapping the business.

We have brilliant people in the team and a very eclectic mix of backgrounds. My co-founder is a physicist and an electrical engineer. Our CTO has been building apps ever since apps were around. Our CMO is a software engineer, one of our software engineers has a medical degree and our customer success lead used to be a geneticist.

We have managed to hire remarkably talented people who are great people, not just intelligent. They work hard, they care about what they do, they care about the people around them and they care about our customers.

This might sound simple, but talented people want to work with talented people who share the same values and ethics. That’s it. Sure, our people have flexibility, equity and all the advantages of working in a startup, but they are not the key motivators for joining.

Our people really buy into the Spriggy mission too. I love coming to work, and I learn so much from our team, every day. They are just amazing to be around. I am sure it will become harder to hire exceptional people as we scale, but right now, hiring talent isn’t a challenge for us.


So, what is the best approach to hiring for a startup?

We wish there were a rule-book for hiring, but every business is different. The one thing all of our interviews have in common? Each leader took their own course and made their own decisions. None followed ‘the Google way’ or ‘the Amazon way’.

Our advice is to go with your gut feel. Instead of focusing on finding the perfect match, focus on the business problem you are trying to solve. You may find there are alternative solutions to hiring. Or as we find in most instances with clients, the person you think you want is not the person you need to hire.

If you are in the process of hiring and want to get some advice contact Dexter or Joanne – [email protected]

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Evan Wong – Checkbox.ai

Checkbox was under the radar for over a year. There was no product to show potential customers. No one knew about us until we won Regtech of the Year at the 2017 Fintech Awards. Fast forward 12 months and we have grown from four to twenty people.

Evan Wong – CheckBox

Evan Wong is CEO and Co-founder of Checkbox. At only 25 he already has two successful  startups under his belt. Checkbox is a Regtech solution that enables business people to build software without any sort of coding.

Checkbox is to business applications what WordPress is to Web Design. Used by lawyers, accountants and bankers Checkbox is considered the ideal tool to fix the Regulatory and Compliance issues facing many financial institutions.

How did you become an Entrepreneur?

Evan: I founded my first business when I was 17, an education business called Hero Education. Until that point I’d never shown any signs that I was going to be an entrepreneur. Looking back, I did possess certain entrepreneurial qualities; constantly learning, the drive and desire to solve problems.

What you bring into the world as an entrepreneur is so unique and it really cannot be matched with any other experience in your life. Because of your hard work, your decisions, your creativity you’ve now put something new into the world. It is an unparalleled feeling when you know that this has impacted so many people for the better. I really got hooked on the drug of being an entrepreneur with Hero Education. So, when I left university at the age of 22 it felt natural to get started with Checkbox.

How did the idea for Checkbox come about?

Evan: Like every other startup, we didn’t begin our journey with this idea. People think you need to find the right idea before you launch a startup. Most startups aren’t successful because of the initial idea. It is usually through a diligent process of speaking with customers, understanding the market, and understanding a customer’s problems that an idea then refines and pivots. Eventually it becomes a viable business not just an idea.

In my experience it is best to start with a big, broad idea that’s anchored to a very strong and passionate why. Checkbox happened because I was passionate about two things: Simplifying the complexity around regulation and compliance. I felt that first hand running Hero education. And my second passion was empowering non-technical people to build software.

A lot of people ask me how did you start a software company when you don’t have a software background? Checkbox solves two of the biggest problems I faced when launching my first startup. I hated compliance and process and I hated that I couldn’t code.


How did you get the product out to market?

Evan: So here is my tip for people launching a startup and that is you should never approach new contacts with the intention of making a sale. If you want to sell your product you first need to build the right relationships. When you start out, you can’t make the sale anyway because the product isn’t there. The way to frame your approach is to always ask for advice and feedback. People are more than happy to help you out, especially if your product is in their space.

But what you’re doing is a presales process. The advice you get can be used to improve your product from a customer’s perspective. And the customer is now invested in the product from an emotional viewpoint. In a few months when you have built your MVP they can’t wait to see the demo.

Then it is a much easier presentation and sales process because you are not coming in cold. The client has contributed to the product, they are invested in its success and if the product delivers value they will buy.

Starting Checkbox straight out of University, I had no professional network to tap into. All our clients are Tier One corporate’s, banks, accounting firms, law firms etc. Two years ago, when I started Checkbox, I didn’t know a single person in these types of organisations.

How did you get Tier One corporate’s as your first clients?

Evan: As a founder you must be quite good at hustling. I had to grow our network of clients from nothing. Coming straight out of University, there were no existing contacts or network in Corporate land.  So, I started out by creating a general profile of people I thought that would be interested in the product. Through a combination of research, Google searches, reading articles, blog posts and LinkedIn profiles I built a target list of ideal customers.

Next, I’d reach out by email asking to set up a short call for feedback, not to sell anything! Just feedback on the Checkbox value proposition. The discussion would usually be followed up a few months later with an in-person demonstration of the product. At the end asking for recommendations or referrals to other contacts in their network. Today most of our business comes from word of mouth and thought leadership marketing. Being active at industry events and conferences helps our profile a lot.

What is the secret to working with Corporates?

Evan: There is a lot of buzz and hype around innovation and technology. Bluntly speaking corporates are still learning how to integrate technology into their day to day processes. There is a lot of excitement surrounding startups and corporates are always willing to have discussions. But you must cut through that first layer and understand quickly who the real customers are. The real customers are people who take you seriously, treat working with startups like a project implementation and have the intention of purchasing a license. It’s tricky but you learn from experience how to prequalify the right opportunities.


How has the business changed since your early days?

Evan: Checkbox was under the radar for over a year. There was no product to show potential customers. No one knew about us until we won Regtech of the Year at the 2017 Fintech Awards. Fast forward 12 months and we have grown from four to twenty people. Today we have a product that is purchased by tier one enterprises. We went from bootstrapping to closing a $1.7m funding round. We have gone from no revenue to now generating revenue. And we won Regtech of the Year again at the 2018 Fintech Awards. It has been a totally crazy year.

Out of all the challenges we have faced, finding the right people has been the toughest. As soon as the business gets to a certain level you can’t do it alone anymore, no matter how brilliant you are or how hard you work. At the end of the day it’s going to be a team of great people who will realise your vision and build on the initial success of the founders.

I have learned people are the most important factor to business success. You need to be very, very precious about who you bring into your team. When you are a startup every new addition changes the dynamic and culture, way more dramatically than it does at a larger company.

How do you attract the right talent to Checkbox?

Evan: I hate to say this, as it’s a love hate relationship, the best way we have found talent is through recruiters. But they’re expensive. We started off hiring through our personal networks, but we didn’t know the right people. Then we tried out some of the newer recruitment platforms. They were okay, again the quality wasn’t quite there.

Then the pressure hit, and we had no other option but to use recruiters. The amount we’ve paid in recruitment fees over the last year is enough to justify two full time in-house recruitment resources. So, we are exploring tools like LinkedIn recruiter. But we are still finding it very difficult to find the right quality if I’m being honest.

The secret is to create partnerships with the best recruiters in their field. Using multiple recruiters was probably our greatest recruiting flaw. Maybe that is the right thing to do at the very beginning because you don’t know anyone in the market? But eventually you realize that by working with so many different recruiters you don’t get the best talent. Recruiters will save the best talent for the clients they have the strongest relationships with. People are the most important asset in a company. It is the one area where you can’t afford to cut costs, even in a startup.

We have gained the best results by working in partnership with select recruiters and paying their fees. I have found if we give exclusivity we can negotiate cheaper fees and still get access to the best talent. It is all about creating a win/win relationship. We get great talent at a reduced fee; the recruiter gets repeat business and knows they will get paid for the work they do.

Attracting the right people is massively important.

Evan: Getting the right talent to stay is even more important. Especially when you consider the pain and the cost for finding someone. Founders can sometimes be a little complacent and don’t fight for employees when they resign. How expensive was it to get them into the business? How much time did you have to spend convincing them to join? How much time and money have you invested in them as a person? Then why aren’t you figuring out ways to make the person want to stay? Especially when replacing them is an extremely expensive exercise. Will the replacement be a fit to your company and can they perform? Retention of good people is more important than acquisition of good people.

 

How do you retain your people?

Evan: Retaining the best people is about leadership. It’s about being a good leader. Good leadership includes understanding and listening to your employees. You need to understand what your peoples career goals. When issues arise, you need to act quickly and resolve in a professional, mature and empathetic way.

Culture has the biggest impact on retaining talent, especially if you’re a startup. If you’re a startup with a crap culture, then you are a crap business and a crap place to work. As founders you need to work out exactly what your culture is going to be. Get your vision, your purpose and your values set early days. The values of your company must flow from the values of the founders. I feel very strongly about this. When you are starting a business, the founders are the brand of the company. The founders are going to set the energy, the expectations and the culture of the company as well.

Similarly, the values of the company must reflect the values of the founders. We have three founders at Checkbox. Now all three of us may not have the exact same personal values. So, we have spent days working out what we truly cared about. Collectively we decided on the top five shared values. Values we could demonstrate and action every day, values our customers and employees would also care about.

The Checkbox values are:

Practice positivity, master empathy. It’s about creating a very positive outlook no matter what happens. It is about choosing positivity over negativity and keeping up morale in the team.

No ego, no blame, no mercy. No mercy means having an open company culture where if there’s a problem we talk it through. There’s a mutual understanding within the company that there are no personal attacks. We are just calling issues as they are but bringing no ego and no blame to the discussion.

Simply first class. We strive to over deliver in everything we do. We want to exceed expectations.

Empowered as a team. This is a concept whereby we provide autonomy to all team members, so they can direct the company in a way they see best, as a team. If it’s not done as a team everyone is just running around like headless chickens. But if we are all aligned to the same target then people can make autonomous decisions.

Be Bold. Suck less. Be Bold means taking calculated risks and experimenting. Learn so that you can Suck Less. If you understand what you suck at then you can fix it. It’s about continuous improvement.

I feel aligned to all five values but the hardest one to practice daily is Simply First Class. As a startup we’ve got limited resources. You often compromise. The quality of the code, the type of talent you can hire or the product you present to the customer. There’s always going to be a compromise. It is tough because you don’t want the company values to be something you aspire to. They should be the expectation today.

What does the future hold for Checkbox?

Evan: We are considered a Regtech startup. For now, we are focusing on regulation and compliance. But there’s no reason why we can’t extend the software for other purposes. Our mission is to empower business people to build software. The vision for our company is to become the industry standard for anyone who wants to build software. In the same way Microsoft Office is used to create documents, presentations and spreadsheets. We see Checkbox as the tool to create software. But today we are focused on business applications to manage processes, policies and decisioning.

Over the next 12 months we have a major project in Asia. International expansion is very much in our sights. In my role as CEO, right now is about laying the right foundations for scalable growth. We are past the phase of product validation, but we are not quite ready for high growth.

We are in a period where we need to hire the right people so that when we hit the ‘Go’ button the business won’t fall apart in the process. We have just hired a Head of Finance and Operations, Head of Professional Services and a Customer Success Manager. These are examples of the more operational roles we need to hire right now. But we are hiring across the whole spectrum; engineers, developers, sales people, operations. In two years, we could have two hundred employees, so we are always open to conversations with talented people who have what it takes to grow a business and share our values and culture.

Get more info on Checkbox  

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